ASEAN’s Pathway to Sustainability Through Green Recovery Post-Pandemic Covid-19: Challenge and Opportunity
Written by Wahyu Candra Dewi
Striking in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly brought disruption to people’s livelihoods worldwide. Upon its initial announcement in March, the pandemic extended from a global health crisis into a global economic crisis that impacted countless nations, including ASEAN country member. As the virus spread at an unprecedented speed through human interaction, governments started to impose the policy of limiting people’s mobility and travel, causing numerous businesses to stop operating, which led to an economic downturn. After undergoing growth of around 4.4 percent in 2019, the financial situation in Southeast Asia countries declined by an average of 4 percent in the following year (Asian Development Bank, 2022b). The degree of severity varied amongst the nations. Thailand’s growth, for example, underwent a sharp contraction of 9.6 percent, while Malaysia’s economy was shrinking by 5.6 percent (Asian Development Bank, 2022b). Furthermore, according to Asia Development Bank’s calculation (2022), the pandemic Covid-19 had blotted out 9.3 million jobs which pushed 4.7 million people in the region into extreme poverty.
Nevertheless, the coronavirus outbreak was considered to create a one-a-lifetime opportunity, to change the trajectory of a country’s development. How the pandemic Covid-19 nearly drove Southeast Asia to the brink of recession showed the vulnerability of the current economic system (Hanns Seidel Foundation, 2021). Therefore, a change in today’s structure is needed to create a more resilient and sustainable economy. ASEAN governments are apparently aware of this present moment. Through ASEAN Summits in Ha Noi, Vietnam, on November 2020, country members formulated a recovery framework focusing on five key areas, including the effort to create a sustainable and resilient future referred to as Green Recovery (ASEAN Secretariat, 2020).
Green Recovery as A Pathway to Achieve Sustainability
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015 and consisted of 17 goals and 169 targets which cover three pillars of sustainability: people, prosperity, and planet (Suriyankietkaew & Nimsai, 2021). Under the UN 2030 Agenda, member states are committed to eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, decoupling economic growth, dealing with climate change and environmental degradation, and creating a better world for future generations (United Nations, 2015). Until 2020, the countries in Southeast Asia were lagging in terms of achieving SDGs. Albeit a thriving economic growth, the region is characterized by high levels of inequality; a lack of social protection; a sizeable informal sector; a decline in peace, justice, and robust institutions; as well as an alarming level of ecosystem damage, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emission (United Nations, 2020).
ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework showed how ASEAN governments have become more attentive toward sustainability goals and manifesting the effort to address the issue through Strategy Number 5: Advancing towards a More Sustainable and Resilient Futures. Looking deeper into the area of priorities, this strategy can be considered as another endeavor to pursue a chance for green recovery post-Covid-19. The approach identifies seven sectors that need to be developed by country members to achieve sustainability and resiliency, including: (1) promoting sustainable development in all dimensions; (2) facilitating the transition towards sustainable energy; (3) building green infrastructure and addressing fundamental infrastructure gaps; (4) promoting sustainable and responsible investments; (5) promoting high-value industries, sustainability, and productivity in agriculture; (6) managing disaster risks and disaster management; and (7) promoting sustainable financing (ASEAN Secretariat, 2020).
Green recovery is perceived as a crucial step that needs to be taken as a pathway for building back the world after Covid-19, necessarily in Southeast Asia. Research conducted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2020) showed how the coronavirus outbreak was closely related to environmental degradation. Numerous diseases that led to the pandemic came from microbes of animals that spilled over. With the desolation of many animals’ habitats, this spill-over will likely have a higher percentage in the future. As southeast Asia is located in a tropical area that is home to a wealth of biodiversity, this region would be more vulnerable to upcoming pandemics (Asian Development Bank, 2022a). Therefore, a recovery process that could ensure the repair of environmental damage would be needed to prevent future health crises and promote and protect sustainability.
According to Asian Development Bank (2022a), implementing green recovery can create more jobs, as every USD 1 million in government green spending would generate 7.49 full-time jobs in renewable infrastructures. The existence of renewable infrastructures could create a circular economy that would significantly impact the environment: cleaner energy and lower gas emission, leading to a greater chance of maintaining global temperature. Further, economic activities that take the environmental dimension into account are expected to prevent Southeast Asia’s GDP from declining by 25 percent in 2045 and would also increase the region’s competitiveness in the global market (Hanns Seidel Foundation, 2021). This way, the development trajectory would be more sustainable and long-lasting for future generations. However, the enforcement of green recovery in ASEAN is not without challenges.
Challenge and Opportunity for Implementing Green Recovery
Increasing environmental protection awareness amongst leaders in the region opens an enormous opportunity for executing green recovery. This concern is manifested in ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, created by ASEAN as a recovery guideline post-Covid 19. Some country members have also adopted green growth or have a framework to fight climate change. Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, have specifically employed green growth as part of the national development plan (OECD, 2022). The Philippines released National Framework Strategy for Climate Change 21-22, and Singapore launched Singapore Sustainable Development Blue Print (OECD, 2022) as part of the effort to combat environmental issues and sustain growth. These approaches showed that Southeast Asia countries already have a tendency to mainstream the ecological dimension into economic development.
Nevertheless, the implementation of green recovery is being challenged by the absence of solid institutions that have the capacity to enforce the execution. The above-mentioned recovery framework is non-binding, which means that the decision to follow the guidelines is being referred back to the country member. ASEAN highly upholds the non-intervention principle as they prefer regional stability rather than enforcing values on unwilling countries, which could lead to rising tension. Therefore, non-compliance with the recovery framework would not inflict any consequences. Further, the transition into green infrastructures would need a long commitment and expensive investment. According to Asian Development Bank (2022a), green recovery would require USD 172 billion of capital annually by 2030. This would be a tough option for some developing countries in Southeast Asia with limited capital. The gain of the investment cannot be harvested immediately, even though the impact would be long-lasting. On the other hand, the government is confronted by demands from the domestic public for welfare that must be met promptly. With this dilemma, green recovery in Southeast Asia would still have a long way to go.
- Wahyu Candra Dewi is a graduate student in Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring International Relations. She is interested in issues related to digital transformation, environment, and human security. Author can be contacted at email@example.com
- ASEAN Secretariat. (2020). ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework. Ha Noi. Retrieved from https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ASEAN-Comprehensive-Recovery-Framework_Pub_2020_1.pdf
- Asian Development Bank. (2022a). Implementing Green Recovery in Southeast Asia. Manila.
- Asian Development Bank. (2022b). Southeast Asia Rising from the Pandemic. Manila. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/779416/southeast-asia-rising-pandemic.pdf
- Hanns Seidel Foundation. (2021). Building Back Better: Southeast Asia’s Transition to Green Economy After Covid-19, Assessment and Recommendation for Parliamentarians. Vienna. Retrieved from https://aseanmp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Building-Back-Better-APHR-Report-FINAL.pdf
- IPBES. (2020). Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Retrieved from https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-12/IPBES%20Workshop%20on%20Biodiversity%20and%20Pandemics%20Report_0.pdf
- OECD. (2022). Green Economy Transition in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. OECD. https://doi.org/10.1787/c410b82a-en
- Suriyankietkaew, S., & Nimsai, S. (2021). COVID-19 Impacts and Sustainability Strategies for Regional Recovery in Southeast Asia: Challenges and Opportunities. Sustainability, 13(16), 8907. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13168907
- United Nations. (2015). Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations website: https://sdgs.un.org/publications/transforming-our-world-2030-agenda-sustainable-development-17981
- United Nations. (2020). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on South-East Asia.